What’s behind all these natural disasters
by Jon Margolis
That was some mudslide that hit Leyte Island in the Philippines last month, when something like several tons of sludge and rock a mile wide slid down a mountain onto the village of Guinsahugan, killing children in their schoolrooms and villagers in their stores and homes.
No wonder. In just two weeks before the Feb. 17 disaster, there had been about 20 inches of rain. It was a natural disaster, as well as a human tragedy.
But maybe nature had some perverse help. Mud moves more easily down Philippine mountains than it did years ago. Those mountains used to be covered by trees. Now, many have been cut bare. Others have been replanted with coconut trees. Nice trees, coconuts, but their roots are shallow, meaning they hold the earth less firmly than did the deeper-rooting trees they replaced.
There is no proof that human activity led to the mudslide that killed some 1,800 in and around Guinsahugan. But would a member of the South Leyte Government Board have felt it necessary to deny that illegal logging was involved if some kind of logging had not been a factor?
To get this information, though, you had to read between the lines. News coverage focused on the survivors mourning their loved ones and on the unspeakable sadness of little children suffocated in their classrooms. The possibility that human endeavor might have been a contributing factor was down in the 17th paragraph, or was absent.
This is common. Whenever people — or even animals — are harmed or threatened by earth, water, fire, or disease, readers and viewers get ample accounts of suffering but minimal exploration of origins.
Should a steer be suspected of mad cow disease, we can be sure that we will see film of the stumbling beast and hear assurances from a government official that there is no threat to human health. Speculation that the presence of huge and densely packed animal-containment operations has something to do with the disease is relegated to the back pages, or the tiny-circulation policy journals.
The same is true with the outbreaks of spongiform diseases among wild deer or elk. The stories concentrate on telling hunters what to do and what to avoid, not on wondering whether deer or elk farms contribute to the epidemics, just as stories about whirling disease in Western rainbow trout pay little attention to the possible role played by fish hatcheries.
After all, science does not claim to know that hatcheries cause whirling disease or that densely packed cattle make mad cow disease more likely. We may never know if there is a connection between global warming and fiercer hurricanes. Good reporters reach conclusions based on what they know, not on what they surmise, so treading softly on connections between human activity and natural disaster is to be both expected and respected.
Except that the tread is just as soft when the science is solid. When the Mississippi River and its tributaries overflowed their banks in 1993, it took days and some effort for most news organizations to start reporting about all the "improvements" — straightening the rivers, building levees, plowing and planting right to the river-banks — that obviously exacerbated the flooding.
This was not because editors and reporters were in thrall to the Army Corps of Engineers or the Farm Bureau. It was because reporters were in thrall, as almost everybody usually is, to habit, and to the established wisdom.
The floods were a great story. Reporters, photographers and network cameramen loved the aerial shots of the flooded plains, the close-ups of the farmer contemplating his ruined cropland, the stirring example of the small-town shopkeepers and children working through the night shoring up the levees. Who needed to complicate matters by asking whether we all shared some responsibility for the disaster?
But there is probably another reason why we — the people who bring you the news — are reluctant to explore human complicity in natural disasters. That's because you — the readers, viewers, and listeners — don't want to hear about it. It challenges some of our dearest, if least likely, assumptions.
One of which is that things just happen, that we are all autonomous, independent individuals going about our own business, but occasionally bedeviled by floods, mudslides or bird flu. The possibility, and it is nothing more, that bird flu pandemics might be more likely because of huge poultry farms, introduces into the discussion the collective, impersonal entities that have impacts on our lives and on the natural world.
It's more comforting to cry for the victims and admire the rescue workers. Wondering whether the way we live now contributes to the problem — that's not comforting at all.